Bad Week, Good Plants – GardenRant

Bad Week, Good Plants – GardenRant

Last week wasn’t great. I won’t go into why, but suffice to say that if sometimes you get to see the best of humanity there will also be times when you see selfishness and bad attitudes. I was looking forward to getting away from it all on Friday with a lecture by the Head Of Living Collections for the world famous Kew Gardens in London, Simon Toomer.

If you’re going to have a water tower in the garden why not make it look like a fairytale castle…?

My plan was to get to the venue nice and early, see the garden and then go to the lecture. I was at the venue when the email came to say that the lecture had been cancelled. This knock seemed a fitting end to a week I was glad to see the back of. At least I was in a garden, and it’s always nice to be in a garden I’m not responsible for.

Trelissick

The estate at Trelissick in Cornwall, right at the south west corner of the UK, was one of the many big old country houses in this area. The estate and garden was given to the National Trust decades ago, with the Trust taking over the house itself in 2012.

Cornwall is blessed with a fairly benign climate. While the maritime climate brings plenty of storms, generally the western end of the county is mild and damp. The perfect climate for many wonderful exotic species.

Trelissick House; the only way to see the front is to stand in a field with some angry looking cows

I would like to show you a few of the plants that caught my eye.

A quick word on the names; I’ll use plant names here and will make reference to common names where relevant. If you’re confident with your plant names then great, but if you’re not I promise I won’t quiz you on them! It’s easy to copy the name of any plant you’re interested in and put it into a search engine, and you will be taken to more detailed information from your region.

Spring Gardens

Magnolias, Camellias and Rhododendrons in particular do very well in the Cornish climate, along with Hydrangeas and a quite boggling range of other things. There are plants that don’t do well here of course, like the Echinaceas (‘Coneflowers’) from the central USA for example, that dislike the usually fairly constant wet.

Imagine this path lined with pink, red and white flowers in spring

Generally the gardens of Cornwall are heavily orientated towards spring interest. If you’re thinking of visiting this part of the UK and you want to see the gardens in their glory then April and May are usually the peak time.

This of course doesn’t bode well for someone visiting a garden in December, especially after strong winds and heavy rain caused a lot of damage in this region the day before. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many interesting and desirable plants on my visit.

Aucuba

I doubt ‘interesting’ and ‘desirable’ are words most gardeners would use around Aucubas. These are plants with a reputation for being dull and boring, at least with British gardeners. Usually you see Aucubas as the ‘Spotted Laurels’ with lots of bright yellow spotting on their waxy leaves; these are plants I really struggle to like as such, although they can look good if sited carefully.

Non-spotted ‘spotted laurel’

Until recently I’d shared the knee-jerk hatred of all things Aucuba, but it pays to have an open mind with plants. Certainly the Aucuba japonica f. longifolia ‘Salicifolia’ at Trelissick was a plant I could actually like. A name this long deserves to be broken down: the ‘f.’ stands for form (or forma if you want to be botanically accurate), with longifolia meaning that it has long or narrow leaves… so the name translates broadly as ‘long-leafed Japanese Aucuba’, with the name ‘Salicifolia‘ meaning willow-leafed (‘Salix-folia’). I’ve certainly never seen a willow with leaves like this.

Not a bad plant, but also no superstar in the garden

This is not a superstar plant for the garden but would make an excellent background shrub. The foliage is attractive in an understated way, and the short sprays of black flowers won’t add much. Think ‘supporting cast’ in the drama of the garden.

Camellias

Camellias generally have a fairly universal appeal, even if we do tend to have our own preferences when it comes to how complex or simple we like the flowers to be.

Camellia ‘Golden Spangles’ usually flowers in spring

It was interesting to see some definitely spring Camellias flowering so early; I suspect that the crazy weather has conned some of them into flower. The day before my visit it had been mild with torrential rain, but a week earlier this part of Cornwall was under snow.

The autumn Camellias were in flower too, if rather rain-battered. With so many of these Camellias being scented it seemed rude not to take a sniff as I passed by. It was nice to see Camellia ‘Yuletide’ in flower, if only to cement my belief that this is not a great Camellia. I suspect it needs a long and warm summer to flower well. The flowers are pretty but few in number given the size of the plant. I’m a big fan of a red flowered one called Camellia ‘Crimson King’; it has larger flowers that are borne more reliably, with a perfume to enjoy too.

Camellia ‘Yuletide’

By far my superstar plant in the Camellia collection was a young plant of Camellia transnokoensis. This is a wild species Camellia from Taiwan, and is a far cry from the big and blowsy Camellias we usually see. The example I saw at Trelissick wasn’t big enough to show the tiered habit and slightly weeping branches of this species, but the adorable little bell-shaped white flowers, marked pink as they open, were borne in profusion.

Camellia transnokoensis

This is not the hardiest Camellia around and can be particularly susceptible to cold winds, but in sheltered gardens this seems to be tolerant of more winter cold than first expected when mature. This is species for the milder regions (and possibly the braver gardeners), but if you find the big and blowsy Camellias in the nurseries do nothing for you then this is a Camellia you will absolutely adore.

Not-so-English Ivies

The ivy family is an interesting one. While English Ivy, Hedera helix, is a nuisance species in at least some parts of the US, ‘ivies’ only make up a proportion of their botanical family. Where a botanical family has a reputation for being a nuisance it’s probably advisable to check its behaviour in your area before planting.

As I ended the Camellias above with a Taiwanese plant I thought I’d start with two Taiwanese plants here. First is Tetrapanax papyrifer, commonly known as the ‘Rice Paper Plant’. This common name is a bit of a misnomer; paper produced from the pith found in the stems of this plant isn’t the edible rice paper we’re familiar with.

Tetrapanax papyrifer

In the UK this plant is a favourite with ‘Hardy Tropicals’ gardeners. On young plants the leaves can reach giant proportions, although plants in milder regions tend to make multi-stemmed trees with much smaller leaves. Not unattractive, just smaller.

A less well-known Taiwanese plant, although becoming more widely recognised, is Fatsia polycarpa. This is a species of the ‘False Castor Oil’ plant, making a wider spreading shrub with more deeply lobed foliage. This species is considered more cold hardy than the more commonly grown Fatsia japonica.

Fatsia polycarpa (foreground)

Fatsia japonica was also found at Trelissick, and was more fully in flower than Fatsia polycarpa. It’s often sold as a houseplant but will grow outside in the milder regions. I think this one is about as hardy as the culinary ‘Sweet Bay’ or Laurus nobilis, so if you can grow that in your area you should be fine with Fatsia japonica. I’m not sure quite how much hardier Fatsia polycarpa is, only that it’s grown in some parts of Europe where Fatsia japonica isn’t reliably hardy though winters.

Fatsia japonica- this is the more commonly grown species

X Fatshedera lizei is an inter-generic hybrid between Fatsia (Fats-) and ivy (Hedera). It’s not a plant I see very often despite being a wonderfully useful shrub for dry shade. Unsupported it tends to flop around at ground level, but it can also scramble around or over things. It doesn’t have those roots that ivy uses to cling to walls so won’t climb on its own.

x Fatshedera lizei

The climate of Cornwall is perfect for Heptapleurums, bold foliage trees that gardeners have known as ‘Schefflera’ until recently. Where climate allows, these are probably the ultimate in woodland garden trees; to say that their foliage is bold would be and understatement. I was particularly taken with Heptapleurum delavayi for its incredible flowering, but sadly not a plant that would thrive for me at home. (If you search for this plant online you might want to try Schefflera delavayi)

Heptapleurum delavayi

New Tree (To Me!)

I wasn’t the only person to have arrived early to look at the garden at Trelissick before the lecture; I saw several familiar faces from the Cornwall Professional Gardeners Group who had set off or arrived before the event had been cancelled.

I was a bit stumped by a very beautiful weeping evergreen tree that I’d not consciously seen before. As good luck would have it I was able to ask some very kind gardeners from Trewidden, another great Cornish garden, if they knew what it was. They told me that they thought it was Maytenus boaria, a large shrub or small tree from Chile. Will I see this tree again? Now I’ve met it for the first time will I recognise it everywhere I go? I do hope so…

Maytenus boaria- a new tree to me!

I don’t know whether it was the sun on my back, the excitement of meeting a ‘new’ plant, or the kindness of fellow gardeners helping me to learn, but it seemed for a moment as though the angst of the week was lifting. I’m hoping for a better week this week, but spending a short time among colleagues and among the plants we care for has at least partially recharged my horticultural batteries.

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